Editor's Viewpoint: Cumbria murders highlight gun risk
Even a community like Northern Ireland, which witnessed decades of violence, is shocked by the killing spree which took place in Cumbria yesterday.
Here the violence had a political and sectarian motivation, but Derrick Bird's murderous rampage through the Lake District, killing people totally at random, almost beggared belief.
Just what turned a popular, easy-going taxi driver into a one man killing machine may never be fully understood. By all accounts there was no reason to suspect that the grandfather was a person with homicidal tendencies or any sort of gun fanatic as often turns out to be the case when multiple killings are involved.
The first reaction to the killings must be to extend sympathy to those bereaved and to hope that those injured will make a full recovery. Such was the extent of the killing rampage, with some 30 crime scenes, a huge number of people have been affected and it will take a huge effort by trauma and counselling services to treat them.
Police investigations will centre on what sparked the outrage and what access Bird had to weapons. Initial suggestions said he was in possession of two guns. Where did he get them and were they held legitimately?
There will be renewed calls for even tighter gun control laws. The legislation covering firearms was amended following two similar outrages in the recent past. In the first, at Hungerford in 1987, Michael Ryan, killed 16 people, including his mother, before turning the gun on himself. Then in 1996, Thomas Hamilton shot dead 16 children and their teacher in Dunblane.
Further restrictions may be required, although Bird is thought to have been armed with at least one shotgun, a weapon which is used widely in the countryside. There would be resistance to any further clamp down on the possession of shotguns, but access to other types of guns should be re-examined to ensure there are no loopholes.
The investigation must also examine the response of the Cumbrian police to the killings. By comparison to most regions of the UK, it is a small force. Questions that will be asked include - did officers react quickly enough to the reports of the first shootings; was there sufficient manpower to mount an appropriate search for the gunman; were there enough armed officers available to back up ordinary police; could Bird have been stopped at an earlier stage of his killing spree?
Of course, it has to be accepted that yesterday's events in Cumbria were exceptional. It is impossible to predict when someone could commit random mass murder. However, emergency services, including the police, do have to plan for doomsday scenarios. Did the Cumbrian police have a disaster plan? Indeed, does the PSNI have contingency plans to cope with similar calamitous events?